Nick Fraser stretches the boundaries of drumming with Justin Haynes' scores (review)

IMOO #136: Nick Fraser presents the absurd and wonderful solo drumset music of Justin Haynes
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO)
Sunday, February 7, 2016 – 7 p.m.
Black Squirrel Books & Café

Drummer Nick Fraser isn't afraid to take musical chances. Although an experienced composer himself, he asked his friend and musical compatriot, guitarist Justin Haynes, to write some solo drumset music for him – and got perhaps even more than he bargained for.
Up jumped spring! Nick Fraser applied his skills as a percussionist to a spring, guitar, vintage drum pad, and his drumset for an eclectic and satisfying performance of Justin Hayne's whimsical scores ©Brett Delmage
Up jumped spring! Nick Fraser applied his skills as a percussionist to a spring, guitar, vintage drum pad, and his drumset for an eclectic and satisfying performance of Justin Hayne's whimsical scores ©Brett Delmage
He told the audience at IMOO that Haynes got “quite obsessed about it”, and produced 20 scores, some of which Fraser still hasn't had a chance to look at. Fraser unveiled five scores at IMOO, starting by reading a tongue-in-cheek “composer's statement” from Haynes – the first in a series of light-hearted introductions to the pieces which got the audience laughing and interested.
Both Fraser and Haynes grew up in Ottawa, but moved to Toronto many years ago. Fraser plays both avant-garde and more traditional jazz music, while Haynes' recordings have ranged from singer-songwriter to chamber music to highly experimental.
The pieces Fraser played Sunday stretched the boundaries of jazz drumming: the first, for example, was the extrapolation of a solo by iconic jazz drummer Max Roach, rewritten for snare drum only. Fraser introduced the piece by saying, “Don't worry, it's not very long,” and that was true for all the pieces. Each was concise; Fraser explored each new idea thoroughly but without letting it drag. Each had its own particular set-up – for example, he changed snare drums between the first and second pieces – and feel.
The second piece, “Everything happens at once” had a large, elaborate graphic score, where the music was expressed through pictures and through graphs of its movement – more a guideline than prescriptive. It had Fraser playing different sounds per limb – for example, his left foot controlled a volume pedal with a recording of him playing the drums, his right foot played a toy synthesizer, and his hands played rhythms based on randomly-generated word lists – while he sung wordless melodies.
It turned out to be an intriguing conglomeration of overlapping sounds, with a fast underlying beat, and an overall echoing, ringing feel. From the description, I had expected something cacophonous, but it turned out to be relatively melodic.
For the third, Haynes asked Fraser for his back copies of Modern Drummer magazine; he clipped out all the “most-difficult looking bars” and put them together and instructed Fraser to play them slowly with brushes – and also had him replace the right-hand part with an electric guitar to create the aural illusion of a duo. It had a definite thrash rock feel, with lots of sustained notes.
The fourth piece was a straight-ahead jazz interpretation of “Moonlight in Vermont”, performed using a long metal spring instead of a drumstick. The score was just a picture of the spring. It had a hard, mechanical feel, with sounds of the cymbal crashes and the spring being rubbed against the drum skin melding surprisingly well. The fifth piece called for a drum machine and a harmonica, and sounded like a 60s folkie wielding a machine gun.
Fraser performed each with intense concentration, in a performance of frequently-changing timbres and textures and more than a few aural surprises. The audience responded with intense silence followed by consistently strong applause.
He ended the first half of the concert with a piece by another renowned drummer, Gerry Hemingway, called “Trance Tracks” – a fascinating piece whose steady rhythms slowly evolved and morphed into different states, in a manner that could indeed have evoked a trance. It, like most of the other pieces Fraser played, showed the versatility of the drummer and drumset and how solo percussion can be rivetingly musical on its own.
After the concert, Fraser said that he and Haynes, together with bassist Rob Clutton, planned to present this music together in a concert in Toronto, probably in April. But it won't be your standard show. Fraser will play Haynes' compositions, Haynes will play Clutton's compositions, and Clutton will play Fraser's compositions, in three individual solo sets. He said he's also hoping to play it at the Open Ears Festival in Kitchener-Waterloo later this spring.
He told OttawaJazzScene.ca that he undertook the project because he wanted to have something to practice that wasn't just from his own imagination – but instead from someone else's imagination.
For the second set, Fraser teamed up with Ottawa alto saxophonist Linsey Wellman for a duet. Wellman had just returned from a Quebec and Ontario tour promoting his new solo sax CD, Manifesto, and was in superb form. They collaborated in an energetic set that took them from the lightest cymbal taps combined with keyclicks on saxophone, to shimmering cymbals against punctuated sax notes, to thumping drums contrasted with tornado-like vibrating sax lines.
The music could turn in an instant: as soon as Fraser slowed his drumming, Wellman dropped to light, attenuated sax lines. In their 30-minute, warmly-received set, they performed one long and one short piece, playing a wide variety of sounds but always remaining interconnected.
Nick Fraser will be back in Ottawa on May 6 at GigSpace, as part of his tour with saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Kris Davis, promoting Fraser and Malaby's second CD together, which they released in late 2015. He'll also bring his Nick Fraser Quartet to Ottawa in the fall, in a release tour for that quartet's new album, which will be released on vinyl.
You'll also be able to hear Nick Fraser here in an IMOO show on Saturday, March 12 as part of trumpeter Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot ensemble.
    – Alayne McGregor